The Tale of Despereaux and the Narrative Voice

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The fourth wall is what stands between the audience and the story. The fourth wall is itself the narrator in most books, and it often comments on the story before it. The narrator mediates the world of the story to us, but it does not speak to us.

Except when it does. In “The Tale of Despereaux ,” the fourth wall is as friendly to the audience as it is to the characters in the story. To read “The Tale of Despereaux ” is not just to get the joy of a delightful story, to watch the rise of an underdog, the rescue of a princess, the creation of a perfect villain. To read “The Tale of Despereaux ” is to make a friend. The narrator is telling you the story, and the narrator is kind to you. The narrator is your friend, and thus the story is more real and true.

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Because of Winn-Dixie and the Non-Normative Family

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I live in China, and here the majority of families are two-parent. Not only that, but there is an assumption that the majority of families in America are also two-parent.

But the truth is that a very, very large minority of families in America are now one-parent. That’s not something that has ever existed in human history before. No one is quite sure how to deal with it. Political reactions range from trumpeting the value of the single parent to putting in place every possible incentive to keep parents together. And a huge source of anxiety for American society in the last few decades has been “how do we explain this to our kids?”

“Because of Winn-Dixie” isn’t explaining to kids how to deal with having one parent abandon them. It’s the story of how one girl came to terms with her mother leaving her. The idea of “family” was broken, and it feels as if it can never be repaired. Most kids can barely process the idea that their parents don’t know everything, and now they have to process the idea that their parents can not only do wrong, but can commit sin.

Her family broken, she has to find a new family. And because of Winn-Dixie, she does.

Bridge to Terabithia, Little Women, and Becoming What We Love–Who We Want to Be

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Everyone sees the world a little differently. The way Leslie sees the world in “Terabithia” is so magical that Jess falls in love with it. Jess wants to be like her, to see the world she sees, but when she dies it is as if the world she saw dies too.

But he does not want that world to die. He wants it to live on. And so he must become her, in a sense. He can change the world he sees, too, and by doing that she will live on in him.

We all have our own self-image. We all believe certain things about ourselves to be true, and understand that certain behaviors are more true to our selves than others. But when we love someone who behaves differently, who has a different image of themselves and the world, sometimes we decide we want to change. We want to become what we love.

15796908In this way, death becomes a limited thing. In “Bridge to Terabithia,” Leslie’s death forces Jess to change, makes her a part of him in a way he isn’t even aware of. In “Little Women,” when Beth dies, Jo consciously shapes herself to act and be more like her dead sister.

What is loved cannot die. Not as long as we love it.

Charlotte’s Web and Death

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“No one was with her when she died.” That is the last line in Charlotte’s story. It’s a lonely, wrenching, heartbreaking line, as simple and perfect as the rest of the novel.

“Charlotte’s Web” is all about finding the story in the small lives. The pig who doesn’t want to be eaten, the scavenging rat, the soft-hearted little farmgirl. But the greatest story of all belongs to Charlotte, who lived both the smallest life of all, dying within the pages of the novel, and the longest, having saved Wilbur and having given birth to generations of spiders.

Yet, even so, her death is so very sad.

Holes: A Perfect Symphony

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Any one plot from this novel could be a story itself.

There’s the boy sent to a “camp” for juvenile delinquents in the desert.

There’s the interracial couple in the 19th century.

There’s the young man in Eastern Europe who breaks a promise to a gypsy woman.

There’s the woman whose entire life revolved around digging holes.

Each one could be a story, and each one is a good story. But Sachar didn’t settle for one story. He knitted them together, and he did it brilliantly. Remove one story, and the whole thing falls apart. But each man and woman’s life intersects in delicate, perfect ways, making for a perfect symphony of story.

The Grey King: Breaking the Rules

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There are lots of books that make you go “how is this a children’s book?” But usually the reason for that is the heavy subject matter, or the level of scariness. It’s not embedded in the fabric of the book itself.

“The Grey King” should not be able to get away with the level of language it uses. Take this passage:

“The other arm he raised  before him, with fingers stiff outstretched in a gesture of command, and he  called out three words in the Old Speech.  And before him, the rock parted like a great gate, to a faint, very faint sound of delicate music that was achingly familiar and yet strange, gone as  soon as it was heard.”
Yes, it is absolutely gorgeous–but the theory goes that children’s books should have much simpler language than adult books. Yet, the language in all of Susan Cooper’s books is often poetic and mysterious.
So why are these so successful? They broke the rule of “how to talk to children” into little tiny pieces, and yet they are some of the most influential and long-lasting books yet written for children.
Part of it is probably that the entire book is not written like that. There are passages when the language changes, to show that Will is acting not in his capacity as a child, but as an old one. Thus that narrator mirrors the story, and the reader is in a way drawn deeper into the world.
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Part of it is that children are simply capable of understanding far more than they are sometimes given credit for. I have a friend who likes to refer to kids as “lesser sentient creatures,” but it’s not really true, is it? Children are capable of a surprising level of understanding and analysis–or else the books that survive would not be the Susan Cooper novels; they would be pieces of total crap.

Kira-Kira And Perception

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The world is what we see. It has an objective existence (probably), but it is filtered through our eyes, our ears, our memories. Our love.

“Kira-Kira” is about that fluidness of perception. Things have their objective existence, and the characters apply their own meanings. The sound of grasshoppers. A sun setting on the day of a death. A bear trap. A cheap watch. A Japanese man.

It may be a little, deceptively simple book. But it’s not about the objective reality. It’s all about what you see.

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